Custody sergeant accused of 'gross failings'

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The Independent Online

The custody sergeant in charge of a mentally ill man who died at his police station has been accused of "gross failings" after CCTV showed that the officer did not check on the detainee for almost 15 minutes, despite giving contradictory evidence under oath.

Sean Rigg, 40, died on the concrete floor of the caged area of Brixton police station in August 2008, after being restrained by three officers on the street less than an hour earlier.

Police Sergeant Paul White told the jury at Southwark Coroner's Court how he had carried out an initial risk assessment of Mr Rigg while he was locked in the police van for 10 minutes. He told the inquest that he had been satisfied by what he saw and what the arresting officers told him that Mr Rigg was better off in the van because he was "violent but medically okay". The sergeant gave the same evidence to the Independent Police Complaints Commission in March 2009.

In fact the CCTV showed that Sergeant White never left the custody area and the first time he saw Mr Rigg was when he was lying on the floor of the caged area. By this point the jury was told that Mr Rigg was unresponsive, apart from opening his eyes occasionally.

Shortly afterwards PS White, who was responsible for the care and well-being of Mr Rigg at the police station, was heard on the CCTV audio telling the forensic medical examiner, the police doctor, that "he's laid down on the floor out there, feigning unconsciousness".

"Why would you tell the doctor that Mr Rigg was feigning unconsciousness when you didn't know what was wrong with him? Would you agree that this was grossly negligent of you," asked Leslie Thomas QC, asking questions on behalf of the Rigg family.

"At this stage, I can't answer that Sir," he replied.

"Do you see accept that providing history to the FME was entirely misleading?" "I accept that it could have been misconstrued as misleading," he eventually agreed.

During a terse exchange between the officer and Mr Thomas, during which Sergeant White was unable to recall much of what he did or said that night, the officer had to accept that much of what he had told the jury under oath was not in fact true.

The jury was then shown further CCTV footage when Sergeant White goes back to check on Mr Rigg a few minutes later, by which time the officer says he was very concerned because the detainee was cold to touch, unresponsive even pain, but yet was still handcuffed and lying face-down.

The custody sergeant is then alleged to have said "died" to the FME, as he walked passed him on the way back from having checked on Mr Rigg. The sergeant could not properly hear the audio recording or recall the incident.

He did agree that he then said: "Can you get an ambulance, he's either fitting or feigning unconsciousness, he's been very violent outside."

An ambulance is not called for another three minutes, and the officers do not appear to start CPR for another 12 minutes after that.

PS White was accused by Mr Thomas of failing in his duty of care to Mr Rigg as he never asked the arresting officers about the restraint and whether they had "gone over the top".

"[As the custody officer] you're the gatekeeper, the protector of anyone who goes into police custody, is that right?" asked Mr Thomas.

"I agree, I am there as an independent person and my job is to look out for the prisoners," said PS White. "Bearing that in mind… if you have a man in front of you, you've got to ask the question, what have you done to him? Why didn't you ask your officers?"

"I was waiting for him to be in front of me at the custody desk..."

"You failed in your duty didn't you? If this isn't the grossest failings of a custody officer's duty, what is it?"

"No sir," responded the sergeant.

He was also accused of failing in his duty because he did not order a sweater or blanket for Mr Rigg for around half an hour – despite the fact he was half naked, lying on a concrete floor, and cold to touch.

"I cannot explain Sir but it is certainly not because I was wanting to treat him poorly," said PS White.

The officer will be questioned by the jury tomorrow.